MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - There's a tree growing in the new home of Ball State University's Wheeler-Thanhauser Orchid Collection, but the only form of liquid that's nourishing it is sweat.
"It's hot," acknowledged Mary Ipple, who was dressed in heat-reflecting white, standing about 14 feet up and inside its fake trunk, plugging handfuls of stringy coconut fiber into cracks and crevices as she worked. "It's awkward. You go in one limb at a time."
Above her, meanwhile, the sun's rays blasted through the glass ceiling of the Dr. Joe and Alice Rinard Orchid Greenhouse.
This giant is a cork tree, and while it's not a real one, the thick cork bark of its exterior is. Putting the tree together were members of the local chapter of Master Gardeners.
"The gardener group really has been invaluable," Cheryl LeBlanc, the orchid collection's curator, told The Star Press.
It was LeBlanc who first envisioned having the tree as a way to display some of the collection's 1,800 orchids, an idea that's not unheard of, but is very uncommon. Some of the orchids will be held in bowls attached to the tree, switched and displayed at the height of their color. Others will be permanently displayed, literally growing from its cork bark, which cost $1,500 and came from a grower in Spain.
"I bought 250 pieces of cork," the curator noted, most of which already appeared to be incorporated in the tree, though some other sizable pieces remained piled on the floor.
The cork, by the way, is a renewable resource. New bark grows back on the donor tree after what's being sold is stripped off to become flooring, those little plugs that keep your wine from spilling out of your bottle and, of course, fake trees from which to display orchids.
Having been pitched the idea of the cork tree, the Master Gardeners got the project off the ground when its tree committee persuaded the board to buy the cork. Since then, members have also been intimately involved in the work.
"You actually are making a jigsaw puzzle out of the cork," noted Wilma Robinson, Master Gardeners' president. "It was a very new program none of the members had ever worked on before."
They were certainly working on it now, though. Ipple, the only person who has worked inside the tree's tight confines besides LeBlanc, is a Master Gardener. Other ones helping this day included H.C. Cross, Barb Rudicel and Lou McCollum, who was working high up a ladder across from Ipple, then descended to the dusty floor to cut another piece of cork using a small electric saw.
"We're trying to get the puzzle pieces to fit as closely as possible," LeBlanc explained over the constant hum of an air-conditioning unit.
As you might imagine in such an earth-friendly project, recycling was a priority. LeBlanc explained the tree's basic structure was made from old sprinkler pipe, while its outer mesh screening, to which the cork pieces are attached by wires, was re-purposed, too. A couple of art department metal-sculpture professors - Kenton Hall and Chet Geiselman - welded it together.
"I told them kind of what I had in mind," LeBlanc said, "and I left them to design it."
Building it was no proverbial piece of cake, Robinson added.
"It really is pretty hard work, actually," she said, though she laughed when she described her own job as, "I stand around and cut wire and say 'this looks good' and 'that looks good.' "
But the end result, she added, will definitely be worth it.
"It just makes a beautiful tree, and it's very, very unique," she said.
For her part, LeBlanc can't wait to incorporate this tree and new building, which "signature donor" dentist Joe Rinard has been watching grow like a proud father, in her work.
"We're really going to highlight the things that bloom at different seasons," she said, noting some 50 docents have already signed on to explain the orchids, their habits and their preferred habitats to the public. "The idea here is, this is a little natural history area. I've made the space into neo-tropical."
To that end, she added, folks in the university's theater shop were hard at work creating appropriate props from a place where beautiful orchids might bloom, props like leaf-cutter ants, a sloth, various tropical bird nests and an ant mound.
"Think Costa Rica," LeBlanc said of the place.